Saturday, October 07, 2006

A bad equilibrium: better than NO equilibrium?

This from the WSJ, last week:

September 25, 2006

BELGIUM'S CULTURE OF CRASHES An old rule of thumb -- always yield to any vehicle coming from one's right -- coupled with a shortage of stop signs makes driving in Belgium a dangerous proposition, says the Wall Street Journal.

To make matters worse, cars on many of the smallest side streets still qualify for priority over those on major thoroughfares -- so long as they are coming from the right. That forces drivers on many boulevards to slam on their brakes without warning, causing some to get rear-ended.

Overall, failing to yield is the cause of more than two-thirds of the accidents at unmarked Belgian intersections that result in bodily injury and contribute to Belgium's relatively high traffic fatality rate, says Jacoby.

Last year, 11.2 per 100,000 drivers in Belgium died from driving accidents. Other countries have more stop signs and traffic lights; by comparison, deaths in the Netherlands were 4.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, 6.1 in Germany and 8.7 in France -- countries that border Belgium. Although the United States has a higher number of fatalities in absolute numbers --14.5 per 100,000 inhabitants -- there are more cars on the street in the United States, as a percentage of the population, than in Belgium; Americans also spend on average more time in their cars, traveling longer distances. When the difference in the number of cars is accounted for, Belgium has 22.4 traffic deaths per 100,000 cars compared with 18.1 in the United States. The government is trying to change the law in response to insurance company complaints and in an effort to encourage all drivers to slow down and pay more heed at intersections -- hopefully bringing Belgium's driving laws on par with the rest of the world.

ATSRTWT: Mary Jacoby, "As Cars Collide, Belgian Motorists Refuse to Yield," Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2006.

This reminded me of perhaps the most interesting single lunch I have ever enjoyed. It was up at VaTech, at a conference on public choice. I sat with Robert Sugden, Brit game theorist and just all around interesting guy. For 90 minutes, we talked about NOTHING but the problem of behavior at intersections. Bob knew every convention you could imagine, and could describe both the area of the world where that convention dominated (car on the right, car on the right unless one road is larger, dirt road turning onto gravel road, etc.) and the unanticipated consequences of using that convention. AND he knew of several fascinating instance of a stable convention collapsing in the face of even a relatively small number of people who used a different convention. Amazing person.

And THAT reminds me of the conversation I had with a Boston cab driver once. I told him I could never drive in Boston; too "chaotic", I said. He looked at me as if I were insane: "Chaos? Never. Let me show you." And he tried to tell me, from the "body language" of the cars (his phrase, an interesting one) what people were going to do. Clearly, the fact that Boston traffic has no lane markers or lights (those that exist are ignored) is NOT the same as chaos, though it may look like that to an outsider. The driver convinced me; Boston traffic had rules, though you had to be from Boston to know them.

So, he asked me where I was going, and I told him: "Shuttle to New York!"

He shook his head: "Now, THAT is chaos. I could never drive in New York. I'd have an accident. Those people don't know how to drive."

What he meant, of course, simply violated his own claim about Boston. Cab drivers in New York, I'm betting, have an analogous set of well-defined rules, conventions, and heuristics for knowing how to signal intentions and how to respond to those intentions. They are just different from those in Boston. It was interesting that the Boston driver did not see that ME saying "Boston is chaos" was the same as HIM saying "New York is chaos."

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